Gardens of the High Line

For many years I walked and enjoyed the wildness of a deserted railway line close to my home. The interaction between the industrial hard landscape and the gradual but persistent encroachment of nature is always fascinating and it was such a scene in New York which inspired the development of the High Line, one of the most interesting and challenging of modern gardens. The team that designed the High Line was led by the landscape architectural firm James Corner Field Operations who invited the architectural firm of Diller Scofidio and Renfro to collaborate in design and Piet Oudolf to bring the project to life with his naturalistic plantings. This book tells the story of this project to date for it is a story which has not finished, as no garden is ever finished but continues to develop and change over time.

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The railway line was built in 1931–’34 and was quite literally a life line for the city and now in its new reinvention might be considered such again. It was an all freight line bringing milk, butter, eggs, meat and cheese from upstate farms into the city until it closed in the 1980s and ‘90s. Nature crept in; wild plants established themselves, annuals and herbaceous perennials, shrubs and even trees and, of course, the fauna which such plants support. The designed garden of the High Line aimed to be in line with how nature was acting though not a natural garden but a naturalistic one. It was designed for change, as change is part of nature, a garden for ecological succession so that while around 400 different plants were introduced there is “a sense of letting wildness come through”, of letting it happen yet managing this change. It was designed and planted with the intention of being perpetually unfinished, allowing growth and change over time. The structure was preserved, the railway line remains intact through lifted and bedded again, and is an essential part of the whole design and experience. It is a very interesting experiment, most certainly a garden, yet quite different and without a doubt a fabulous addition to the city of New York and a pleasure to its citizens.

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As it is a railway line the High Line is narrow in comparison to its length but it is comfortably wide enough to accommodate the track, walkways, seating areas and planting. It was designed as a “choreographed experience” – a linear garden best experienced by beginning at the Gansevoort Street Stairs, the southern end, and walking its 1.45 miles (2.33Km) length. The Ganesvoort Wood  is dominated by Grey Betula populifolia interplanted with Cercis, Cornus, Amelanchier and Viburnum, all able for the dry conditions of the High Line. The move to the Washington Grassland, as with all such transitions along the line, is not marked by any architectural structure but rather with plant architecture – there is sufficient architecture in the High Line itself and in the surrounding city buildings that further additions would have lead to clutter and distraction from the purely garden or plant content. The Hudson River Lookout is unusual in that this section of line is higher than the rest and gives wonderful views to the river and is filled with plants which are typical of the north eastern United States – sumach and tall perennials. There is also a Sundeck and Water Garden on this raised section with the cleverest of water features – no more than the most shallow sheet of water running over the surface of the walkway. It is a place for people to sit, chat and relax.

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The Northern Spur was bricked off when the line was closed and has been left in this state. The soil here is especially shallow and poor and planting here is determined by “survival of the fittest” – economically the cheapest option and ecologically the most sustainable. 10th Avenue Square includes an open air theatre among the planting while The Chelsea Grasslands feature the most common plant of the High Line – grasses, interplanted with suitable herbaceous perennials. There is a move back to woodland planting in the Chelsea Thicket which leads to the 23rd Street Lawn and Seating, one of the most popular areas on the High Line. The visitor then meanders through The Meadow Walk with grasses, Achillea, nepeta, calamint, coreopsis which have proved to be one of the most successful plantings. The Flyover, a raised walkway, brings visitors to canopy level to enjoy redbuds, shadbush, sassafras, sumach and broad-leaved magnolias. The Wildflower Field leads to the final section of the garden, The Rail Yards, an area left nearest to nature in its planting and development.

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The High Line is a public park owned by the City of New York and maintained and operated by the Friends of the High Line in partnership with the New York Department of Parks and Recreation. The Friends raise the funds to operate the gardens and provide the personnel to maintain them. Gardening the High Line is challenging: traditional gardening is about maintaining the status quo while gardening the High Line is more dynamic in nature as it aims to maintain and accommodate change.

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The gardens of The High Line are already an outstanding success and it will be interesting to see how they develop in coming years. In the meantime this book will give you an wonderful insight into the history, development, philosophy and beauty of The High Line. It is well written and the photographs are more than excellent, indeed they dominate the book and prove the old adage of the picture and the thousand words perfectly.

[Gardens of the High Line – Elevating the Nature of Modern Landscapes, Piet Oudolf and Rick Darke, Timber Press, Oregon, 2017, Softback, 320 pages, $40, ISBN: 13:978-1-60469-699-8]

Paddy Tobin



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